Abdala tells stories with sounds he captures with a tape recorder from his home and the streets of Goîania, a city in Brazil's center. He also runs Propósito Records, home to some of Brazil's most experimentally minded artists. We spoke to Abdala about his background in Afro-Brazilian congadas, the creation of Propósito, and his sixth release of 2014, For Those Who Came From Nothing. To celebrate that prolific accomplishment, he's also put together an exclusive mix for Afropop, featuring his own music and songs by other artists on Brazil's experimental cutting edge.
Jesse Brent: Tell me about Goiânia. What is the culture like in this part of Brazil? What kind of music do you typically find here?
Abdala: Goiânia is the capital of the state of Goiás. It’s a young city, with only 81 years of existence and roughly 1.5 million people. As for the state, Goiás is located in the center of Brazil and has a history of power centralization, be it economic or political, in the hands of the same few people--“colonels,” as we like to call them. It’s a violent state from its beginning. Death for maintenance of power has always been common and is still present nowadays. We are an agrarian state, providing raw materials. Because we are in the middle of the country, we have received every kind of cultural and geographical influence: African, Portuguese, Spanish, you name it. The city where I was born, for example, is called Catalão due to Spanish influence.
On the other hand, there is the traditional Feast of Congadas, which is an African tradition. Catalão has the biggest congada feast in Brazil, gathering thousands of dancers and people coming from all around the globe every year. Africa is also present in our geography, seeing the amazing similarities between Cerrado (our biome) with the African savannah, as well as our habits and traditions, regardless of the catechization of the black people who were brought to our country. Almost every cultural manifestation from Goiás has an African background, mixed with a white Catholic embrace. That’s the story with the congadas, catira, folia de reis, etc. This, however, does not mean black people don’t have a link with their ancestral religion. It’s very common to see people go to Catholic churches, and also to candomblé when nobody’s watching. This shows that they have tried to make everything whiter, but were not able to achieve success.
Can you talk some more about the Feast of Congadas? Do you go there every year? What was the experience like this year?
Congada is the biggest cultural feast in the city where I come from, Catalão. It’s the greatest link with Africa that exists in the city. The ternos (groups) represent and play different rhythms. Rhythms like marujeiro, prego, catupé, etc. Each one bears their traditional clothes, habits and music, praising Nossa Senhora do Rosário. It isn’t seen with good eyes by the white society of the place, but it’s something from which they profit every year. For me, the biggest legacy of the feast is this: the power of poor people before the rich. While big soy farmers try to make their economic prowess equal social influence, the power of poor and black people is what made Catalão get in the cultural map.
Traditional and religious music has always been a part of my life. Not for the religious part, but as something natural. I started playing congo [another word for congada] because all of my friends in my street played. The way I make sounds today is the same as when I started playing congo. I didn’t know I was playing music; I was just following its natural rhythm.
How long have you been making music?
My first experience was with the congadas in 1994. I didn’t know I was having a sound experience; I was just having fun with my friends. Music for me has always been a matter of rhythm. Even today as I try to work more with drones and noises, rhythm has always been a part of my life. Of course, with time I began discovering things that touched me and marked me--things from Brazil, things from New York (no wave), Tibet, African Sahel, Chicago, etc.
I decided to get involved and try to seek a voice about four years ago. I got an old keyboard from an uncle and started to take some interest in music made by electronic equipment, and since nowadays it’s easier to get things done, I decided to do it--tell something to myself, above everything.
What kind of equipment do you use to record?
Technology is more accessible for everyone, right? I’ve recorded sounds even on a smartphone, before having access to software or boards and computers. I’m used to using what’s available: a cell phone, a Taschen recorder to capture audio on the streets, an iPad, anything I can put my hands on.
When you sample sounds from home or on the street what is that process like?
I bought a small Taschen recorder and, every time I go to the corner to have a beer, I leave it on, capturing sounds of streets, avenues, people talking. I also went to a farm and got the sounds of some birds--I can’t even imagine the species. Just let it roll. I got a lot of streaming water noise, too. In my house there is a serious problem of pressure in the pipes and it produces this really strong frequency sound. I’ve captured and used this a lot.
Your most recent albums have both had stories that accompany them. How do you make the music match the concepts that you have in mind?
It’s all very private and particular. I can’t really tell if I make music or I just make. I’m living, searching for ways to face and strengthen my life.
Can you talk about the story that For Those That Came from Nothing is telling?
I was adopted when I was just three years old and got a family from night to day. I ended up in a town and a neighborhood where I would be regarded as rich because there was a TV set in my house and my father had a car. Yet, in the school where I studied, thanks to a scholarship, I was looked down on for being from a poor neighborhood and dancing congo. I’ve always lived in this “nothing.” I never belonged to anything and, at the same time, everything was possible to me. For Those... is about this--about how I choose to live. Also it talks about the subject of leaving a small place and going to see the world--abandoning beliefs and choices branded during childhood and seeking new choices.
Talk about Propósito Records. When did you form the label? How many artists do you have signed? How many releases have you put out?
Propósito is the story I just talked about. They are the choices I’ve made, without knowing if they are correct or the best ones. But they are my choices. About a year ago I lost my job, with a son who was almost four years old to look after and I had some experience in producing small experimental music shows. Not to mention the fact that I’ve always had some reference labels in my musical and even personal formation. All of this ended up in the Propósito. I believe very much in my friends and in the strength of friendship. Propósito is this. It’s me believing in what my friends do and in what I listen and want for myself. When it all began I called these friends in this trip the Desassossego ["unrest" in English], whose work I believe in and like very much--Projeto Mujique from Pouso Alegre and Efeito Horizonte in São Paulo. I, myself, had nothing to release, but these were the people whose ways of doing things I believed in. In some time, I called Diversões Eletrônicas, which is a rock and noise trio made by my best friends, and after that came Guilherme Granado, who also came to be a great friend and a source of inspiration.
Within a year we released two EPs from Desassossego, two works from Projeto Mujique, who’s no longer with Propósito, one re-release from Efeito Horizonte, Guilherme Granados’ Glaciers of Nice Vol. One, an EP by Clube Meridien, an EP by Efeito Lucifer, and also my own things--six in total. I have worked and produced incessantly throughout the year.
Tell me about Guilherme Granado, who played on an album with Pharoah Sanders and Ray Mazarek. How did you come into contact with him and how does the new album fit into what you want to do at Propósito?
A few years ago I began producing some small concerts in Goiânia. Guilherme was the first person I really brought here on my own. Before him there was Joe Lally (Fugazi), but this was a work in partnership with other people.
When I actually went to do something by myself, he was the first person who said yes and, from that, we became friends. He is amazing and comes from a generation that has done a truly impressive work in São Paulo for the last 20 years or more. His generation and the people around him are a great source of inspiration for me, for they are people who do something personal, with an incredible vital strength. He is a person who has a unique strength in what he does and chose Propósito because he believes in us. Or at least that’s what I like to think.
How did you become a part of the Hy Brazil compilation that Chico Dub put together?
Chico Dub has a close eye on this non-conventional music production in Brazil, right? He has organized a festival that grows in quality every edition and has sought his own way, bringing new names to light. One day, through Facebook, he asked me if I would like to send him a track to take part in Hy Brazil Vol. Five, turning to experimental music. And then it happened.
Do you feel connected to a larger avant-garde scene in Brazil?
I think that there are people, like Guilherme Granado, Maurício Takara, Carlos Issa, and Jonathan Gall that have been around for at least 20 years. I don’t know if I can call it a vanguard, but they are setting forth. They are people with a more defined voice. I am friends with some of them and am trying to seek my own voice.